The Feminist Funder


When it comes to projects focused on empowering Jewish women and girls, it’s a good bet that Barbara Dobkin’s name is listed among the supporters. And if it isn’t, you have good reason to ask why not.

Dobkin, 66, is a longtime donor-activist and proud feminist funder known for her willingness to take risks. She served as founding chair of the Jewish Women’s Archive, a chronicle of the accomplishments of American Jewish women, and is the sole funder of Ma’yan: the Jewish Women’s Project of the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan, a nonprofit think tank focused on the issues that Jewish teenage girls face.

In 2008, Dobkin joined the board of the American Jewish World Service, which she currently chairs. In recent years, she’s broadened her philanthropic focus to include getting involved in the White House Project and leading the creation of Women Moving Millions, which raised more than $180 million in gifts of $1 million or more for women’s foundations and women’s funds. Last month, Dobkin received the prestigious Leadership, Equity and Diversity Award (LEAD) from the Women’s Funding Network and the Council on Foundations. The Jewish Week sat down with Dobkin at the AJWS building, where she dished about how women are changing the face of Jewish philanthropy, why funding women is so important and her impatience with how long it is taking for the Jewish community to practice the family values that it preaches.

Jewish Week: More Jewish women are gaining control of the purse strings and becoming philanthropic decision-makers — a trend that is expected to increase over the next decades. How has the role of Jewish women in Jewish philanthropy evolved?

Dobkin: Clearly it has changed some. I think you see it especially in the federation systems. When I would give a gift to the federation, the thank you almost always went to my husband, Eric. That has basically stopped. Jewish women’s foundations are popping up all over the place, mostly in federations, but some are independent. These are women getting together to fund women; some don’t give just to Jews. Most give from their endowment, so they’re not making huge gifts. Generally, the women who are involved are federation women and they’re not very progressive about their funding. But that being said, it is women funding women. And that’s very new and encouraging.

What, for you, would serve as a mark of achievement for women’s funding?

When Jewish men begin to fund things where Jewish women are making a difference … that will be a big change. The women’s foundations need to find ways to include progressive Jewish women who don’t necessarily fund anything Jewish. That would take a much more open kind of policy.

You take a very hands-on, donor-activist approach to your philanthropy. Do you wish more Jewish philanthropists would do the same?

I’m often considered radical within the Jewish community. In my fantasy, I would like to see equality between men and women in every sphere of life. I would also like for women internationally to be valued. My friend Abigail Disney is working on a four-part series on women and war for PBS that deals with the question, ‘what would war look like if women really mattered?’ I thought that was brilliant. In a way, the whole world could be different if women really mattered.

Is there an underlying thread, a common denominator, to all of the causes that you fund?

What I tend to do personally is to look at a project and only fund the things that will begin to make a difference and begin to make change. The mission of the White House Project is pretty clear — the idea is to get women in the pipeline in all kinds of elected office, from school boards to hopefully the presidency. When it comes to the Jewish Women’s Archive, a lot of people don’t get it the way I get it. Until Jewish women are seen as part of Jewish history, it will be hard to make the change I want to see. The Jewish community needs to be much more inclusive. There are all kinds of Jews out there: lesbian Jews, Jews of color, and there are women. Women have to be seen as a minority in the Jewish community because that’s the way they’re treated. And as long as kavod [honor] in the Jewish community depends on money, things will not change in the mainstream [Jewish] community.

Jennifer Gorovitz was just named CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco. She’s the first woman to head a large federation. Do you view this as a sign of progress?

We have to say it’s a sign of change. Still, I think it will be a long time before we see this happening elsewhere.

What’s your take on the stirring in the Orthodox community when it comes to female spiritual leadership?

The fact that so many women are studying is wonderful. There will be some sort of female Orthodox rabbi. Women themselves are speaking out. Our voices are all getting a little bigger.

You’ve been a longtime supporter of Shifra Bronznick’s Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community. What do you think of AWP’s latest campaign, which aims to encourage Jewish communal organizations to adopt formal family-friendly policies?

The Jewish community talks about family values all the time. If we practiced family values, these would be reflected in our policies.

Your involvement with the American Jewish World Service can be seen as a departure from your focus on funding feminist projects.

AJWS is the best service-learning program that exists within the Jewish community. And most of the work in the global south is directed at helping women. I truly believe that the solutions are out there — and in the hands of women. The problem is that nobody is funding the women.

In recent years, you’ve expanded your funding to women’s causes within the secular world, primarily with the Women Moving Millions campaign. Do you think it’s easier to achieve gender equity outside of the Jewish community?

I’m a very impatient person. Take the Jewish Women’s Archive, for example. Women will say to me, “That’s a very important cause but how does it compare to someone who has no food to eat?” Yet I strongly believe that if we don’t change the way Jewish history is told, the mainstream Jewish community will continue to be very chauvinistic. Another problem is that when it comes to women’s causes, many people in the Jewish community view it as one-off funding. I believe that when you fund something, you stay in it for the long run. I’d like to get out of funding a lot of these things, but no one is standing in line to fund [Jewish women’s projects]. Even when they say they care, they’ll give to other causes.

Has your husband [Eric Dobkin, a retired Goldman Sachs executive] always been supportive of your philanthropic contributions?

My husband never needed to make his name in philanthropy. He was too busy earning money [she laughs]. Eric sees this as my money. To some extent, I still don’t see that. If I did, I’d give a lot more. He has things he cares about, including the arts. He’s involved in a great project — an anthropological think tank — at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, N.M. I’ve found ways for him to fund Native American women. I believe that you can use the gender lens with everything you do in terms of funding. The Dobkin Fellow is always a woman.

You have two daughters. Do you envision them continuing your legacy as a funder of feminist causes?

My children will probably not be donors to any mainstream Jewish organization I can think of. What they want to fund, they fund. I trust their values.

What advice would you offer to aspiring Jewish women philanthropists?

Probably the same advice I’d offer to anyone involved in philanthropy. Start out by asking the following questions: What do you want to see changed, for instance, in the Jewish community? Who out there is doing that kind of work? If talking big bucks, look for people who are thinking out of the box. Find something that you really think you want to do and make a difference. There are also ways to give smaller amounts of money that really count. If you’re worried about the future, look at what some of the young people are doing and support them. Lastly, there are probably things you don’t like that are happening. Make sure you’re not funding them. And let them know.


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